Tips for Better Onsighting
Climbing coach Neil Gresham shares his tactics for onsighting during a climbing trip.
I’m going to Ceuse for three weeks this summer and aim to push my onsight / flash grade as hard as I can. I know that you’ve gone into detail in past articles about how to onsight on a route-by-route basis [see Ask the Coach, No. 184] but it would be really useful if you could cover a broader range of tactics that could be employed over several weeks on a trip.
—Doug Hamilton | Bristol, U.K
Libanos (5.13d), Kadisha Valley, Lebanon. Photo: Sam Bie.” title=””Slabs may do wonders for your footwork but they are lousy for building strength.” Alex Chabot shows how it is done on the steep terrain of Libanos (5.13d), Kadisha Valley, Lebanon. Photo: Sam Bie.”>First, make every effort to travel to different crags prior to
the trip and onsight as much as you can. If you are confined to indoor climbing, then try to visit new gyms rather than lapping the same old routes.
Another alternative is to do stick training (where your partner points you around the bouldering wall) or circuits to increase your repertoire
of new moves. Even if the rock at your local crag is dissimilar to your destination, climbing outside should still be a high priority. Indoor climbing
simply does not prepare you for using small footholds.
The angle of the crag is more the issue than the type of rock when it comes to preparing for a trip. Slabs may do wonders for your footwork but they
are lousy for building strength or endurance. If your local crag is low-angled, you will need to do plenty of gym climbing to help build fitness
for the steep limestone of .
Regarding redpointing: For less experienced climbers, a redpoint ascent is a great way to boost confidence and help you focus on technique. However,
for mid-grade and higher level climbers, too much time spent redpointing can have the reverse effect, providing you with a false impression of
your onsighting capabilities. Overall, it is usually best to focus entirely on onsighting, both prior to and during the trip, if that is what you
wish to improve.
For day structure, the 2 on, 1 off (or 3 on, 1 off) combination works well but only if you are fit enough to do this right from the start of the trip.
If not then you will need to build up. Start by climbing 2 on, 1 off and doing short days or, better still, easier, mileage-based days. It is only
when you go for something right at your limit and fail near the top that you are likely to burn out and feel the need for a rest day. You shouldn’t
be trying hard routes at the start of the trip anyway. The initial goal should be to gain as much experience on that specific rock-type, so go
for mileage. For example, if your hardest previous onsight is 5.12b then start by trying to do three or four 5.11d’s per day (after a pyramid
warm-up) for the first two days, then take a rest day and go for two or three 5.12a’s.
Once you are into your flow, by the middle of the trip you can not only expect to climb well the day after a rest day, but also on your second day
on. You may feel slightly more tired on the second day, but you should also notice that you warm up more easily and feel like you are moving better
— this frequently compensates for accumulated fatigue.
Get on harder stuff by the middle of the trip. Try to repeat your current onsight personal best, and it really pays to do this two or three times rather
than leap-frogging and going for the grade above too quickly. You may be lucky and send, but if you keep getting shut down, then the demons of
doubt can start attacking your psyche. If it’s a short trip, then one route at your current limit may have to do as preparation for your goal of
upping the ante. Once you’ve achieved an onsight at your current level you’ll have the skill, the fitness and the self-belief to push to the next
The best time for attempting a personal best is the final third of the trip — in your case, the last week. Consider trying to onsight a route two
grades harder than your current limit. Although this sounds like a futile mission, it will have the effect of making your target grade seem easier
(both physically and mentally) when you next try it. Note that the only time to do this is just before a rest day, or you’ll just burn out and
sabotage your chances of climbing anything else.
Visit sectors of the crag that offer plenty of suitable routes. Don’t put routes on pedestals. If you drop one then simply move on to the next.
After you’ve fallen on a route, you will usually need to get to the top somehow in order to strip it. In some cases, saving energy and skin will
be the priority, so just grab each clip and hangdog your way home. At other times you’ll want to boost confidence by proving to yourself just how
close you were. In these cases, simply get straight back on and try to climb to the chains in a single push.
I wouldn’t advise lowering off and redpointing the route. If your goal is simply to tick a hard onsight, then you should save everything for that.
Regarding warming up: do a pyramid-style warm-up, rather than leap-frogging from easy routes onto hard stuff. As to whether this should be on routes
you know or on onsights, my gut instinct is to say that onsights are better. Sure, if you pick a sandbag warm-up route it could blow your day,
but the benefit of onsighting as part of your warm-up is to summon your route-reading skills.
Listen to your body throughout the trip and note how your warm-up requirements may change. At the start of the trip you may only be able to do three
warm-up routes, but as you build fitness, then more warm-up routes become viable. Conversely, you may need to do fewer warm-up routes if your skin
is badly worn or cumulative fatigue starts to set in.
This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 188.